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lawrie williams

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Lawrie Williams is a long-standing member of the North Bondi Surf Club and was Head Beach Inspector in the 2000’s. He is Services Coordinator at Waverly Council and an amateur Bondi historian. He spoke to Renae Begent.

I was born in Paddington, in 1958.

But, like a lot of Paddington kids I gravitated to the beach. You either hung out in Paddington with all the gangs that used to get up to no good or you went to Bondi. I was lucky my Mum wanted me off the streets so she got me in to North Bondi Surf Club.

I was 13 when I did my qualifying certificate to be a cadet lifesaver. The popularity of the clubs was really waning at the time. A lot of guys my age just wanted to surf. They didn’t want to compete at the surf clubs or put on a clubby cap and stand there on weekends.

The surf club opened my mind and opened up so many opportunities.

It was the salvation for a lot of kids who would have ended up going down the wrong path.

Once I joined the club, I was there every weekend. I was never at home.

My whole world changed at 17. I was offered the job as caretaker of the North Bondi Surf Club. It was a fantastic opportunity to get out of the poky two-bedroom unit where I was sharing a room with my sister. So that was it, I moved out of home.

The very next year I heard there was a vacancy with the lifeguards and someone said they’d put in a good word for me. Back then there were none of the rigorous tests they do now, it was all word of mouth like, ‘Lawrie Williams is a good board paddler, he’ll be sweet’. And that’s what happened. So here I was, 18 at the time, living in the surf club, right on the beach, two big rooms to myself, I had to walk next door to work. I was just the king.

You’d commonly get people bonking on the verandah. Course they didn’t know anyone lived there. So I just moved my bed under the switch and I’d hit the lights. The fact they were bonking did nothing for me, the fact they woke me up did!

The first body I had to attend to was at South Bondi, not long after I started.

A guy had come out of the Astra Hotel loaded on barbiturates, ploughed his car into Notts Avenue,

then got out and staggered head first over the fence. Kids catching crabs found his body the next morning.

The guy I was working with, who had 30 years on the beach said, “mate this is what we do, you’ve gotta be exposed to this.” We had to take his pulse even though he was clearly dead. In those days, you were exposed as the rookie, nowadays the guys get counselling. My counselling back then was probably a beer at the end of the day.

I remember some ding-dong battles with board riders. We had to call the cops in one night, ‘cos what would happen at night is if the rest of the beach was too big to ride, people would want to surf North Bondi. If our flags were still up, you weren’t allowed to. But on this occasion they decided to defy us… but do it in numbers. So there was a good 20, 30, 40 guys out there and only three of us. What were we going to do? They defied us.

We had the megaphones on saying, “guys out of the water”, and we we're getting the birdy and “fuck you”.

We had to call the cops down to come and help us.

I hated that period. I hated those battles. I just didn’t see it as our core duty.

Similarly, when council, in its wisdom, banned topless bathing in the late 70’s, girls would just defy us. They’d just walk around us.

I honestly think that was my worst period as a lifeguard.

Over a 24-year period, I had 20 years on the beach, including two as the head guy here at Bondi. After that amount of time you start to wonder, “do I really want to be out there, digging in the flags every morning and copping all the antisocial behaviour we get with kids from the West?” I’m looking at my group certificate and going, “well, I’m the head lifeguard of the busiest beach in the country and I’m on $46 grand gross. After 20 years I’m only earning this? This can’t be right.”

I had to move to Botany when my twins were born.

To me, Botany was where the people with two heads and six fingers lived. 

I was really like a duck out of water. It was about the same time my wife and I separated. I’d left the beach. I was cleaning for a living and hating it. One minute you have all this power as a lifeguard and the next I’m cleaning up a filthy unit young men had been sharing and I’m thinking, “why did I leave?” So what did I do? I went to the pub. I’d never been a pub person and here I was spending increasing amounts of time at the pub. It was just such a desperate existence, living downstairs in the rumpus room, cleaning, separated, with four kids.

Moving back to Bondi was the best thing that could have happened.

As luck would have it this job I’m doing now came up in 2003.

I’m lucky with these guys in that I still work in here, in a different role. (Lawrie’s office is right next door to the head lifeguard’s office, down at Bondi Pavilion.)

I’m lucky that they honoured me with an annual trophy. There’s the ‘Lawrie Williams annual shield’ for the best and fairest lifeguard. So when the new guys come in they go, “wow, that’s that guy, that’s that lean mean machine next door.” They go, “wow, he must have been someone.”

If I didn’t have that I’d just probably be seen as someone that used to be a lifeguard.

Words: Renae Begent

Photography: Tim Bauer



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